Is Organic Wheat Gluten-Free?

Marketing confusion may lead to an important mistake

organic wheat in a sack
Getty Images/Michael Pohuski

Organic wheat is not gluten-free. Gluten is a type of protein molecule found in wheat, barley, and rye that forms within the kernel of a grain as it grows. Since organic wheat is simply wheat that's grown organically, it most certainly contains gluten.

However, it's not uncommon for people to think that organic wheat is actually gluten-free. That's likely because people are confusing two types of products they believe have health benefits: organic foods and gluten-free foods.

Organic vs. Gluten-Free

Much of the confusion related to the terms "organic" and "gluten-free" stems from how the products are marketed. Both of these classifications were introduced at roughly the same time, and both have been heavily promoted as "healthier" alternatives to non-organic and gluten-containing products.

Other terms, such as "free-range" and "hormone-free," also were introduced into the dietary lexicon in the same time period. All of these terms suggest that consumers can embrace a healthier and more ethical lifestyle by the foods they choose to eat.

The terms "gluten-free" and "organic" are strictly regulated, and foods that carry those claims on their labels have to meet specific criteria. However, other terms, such as "hormone-free" and "free range" aren't as strictly regulated, and companies may mean different things when they use these terms.

Unfortunately, most consumers aren't aware of the regulatory details, and are quick to interpret terms like "organic" and "gluten-free" as meaning similar things. As such, they may purchase a gluten-free product assuming that it is organic, or buy an organic product assuming that has little or no gluten. That's how people may erroneously come to believe that organic wheat (which most certainly is a gluten-containing ingredient) actually is gluten-free.

Some people will even buy gluten-free products thinking that they are inherently better for them when, in fact, they aren't any more or less nutritious than the alternative.

Who Needs to Avoid Organic Wheat?

People with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity need to avoid gluten-containing foods such as organic wheat because their bodies will react badly to the gluten in these foods when consumed.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system launches an attack on substances or cells that are otherwise harmless. When you have celiac disease, this immune system response response directly affects the finger-like villi of the intestines and triggers a cascade of symptoms ranging from diarrhea to indigestion and vomiting.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, meanwhile, is a recently-recognized medical condition that's not well understood, but seems to involve symptoms such as headaches and digestive upset.

People who have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity need to avoid grains that include gluten, such as organic wheat. Because of this, they commonly turn to alternative gluten-free grains, such as rice, corn, millet, and sorghum, to replace the wheat in their diets.

Safety of Ancient Wheat

Ancient forms of wheat (such as einkorn, emmet, kamut, and spelt) are often grown organically and embraced by some as "safer" forms of grain. Certainly, health blogs and newsletters have regularly offered accounts of people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity who are said to have consumed these grains without symptoms.

Unfortunately, the reports don't coincide with the research. In fact, a study published in 2013 tested various types of ancient wheat (including einkorn, emmet, and Graziella Ra) and found that all elicited immune system responses, and those responses sometimes were severe.

Moreover, the response varied from person to person, suggesting that there is no way to know whether an ancient wheat will be more or less toxic than regular wheat. The advice, therefore, is to avoid any wheat or wheat-based product, organic or ancient, if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

A Word from Verywell

The bottom line: organic wheat is neither gluten-free nor low in gluten, despite what some may lead you to believe. Growing wheat organically (without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides) may be better for the environment and possibly for your health, but it doesn't alter the structure of the gluten proteins in the grain. Therefore, all wheat—including organic wheat—will contain gluten.

The only "wheat" a person with celiac disease can safely consume is buckwheat, and that's not even a wheat. Rather, it is the seed of a flowering fruit related to rhubarb that is completely without gluten.

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